The Stillest Day is a freakish, Gothic, romantic, literary thriller that takes on a dozen profound questions about our civilized world with presumption and panache. It's about life, art, love, sex, obsession and the distinct possibility that any communication at all between humans is pure delusion, nothing more....I've left out all the kinky sex and bloody horror in this little novel. Better to say that it's a hideously pleasing meditation on reflection and fragmentation and leave it, discreetly, at that. -- The Washington Post
Carol Peace Robins
Despite unpleasant characters. . .despite. . .overblown sentences . . .we still read on, possessed like one of Hart's own protagonists. The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Known for tales of sexual obsession that explore the darker aspects of the psyche, Hart (Damage; Sin) adds to these another title (published earlier this year in the U.K.) in which heated prose perversely describes the catastrophic disruption of repressively ordered lives. Narrator Bethesda Barnet looks back on her 30th year, when she lives with her invalid mother and teaches art at the local grammar school. The protective yet stifling "rigid observance of habit" and "ancient rhythm" that structure life in her small, turn-of-the-century village increasingly oppress her, particularly as Lord Grantleigh, wealthy village patron and Bethesda's mentor, introduces her to decadent French aestheticism. When Bethesda sets eyes on new teacher Mathew Pearson, she experiences an artistic epiphany akin to a religious vision and immediately undertakes a series of secret paintings on mirrors, meant to capture the images of both lover and beloved at once. As Bethesda's private infatuation continues, her disgust for the purely physical settles on Mathew's pregnant wife, Mary, who becomes the victim of Bethesda's bizarre act of creation and destruction on "the stillest day," when released passion shatters surface calm. Hart aims to disturb and achieves her goal, although readers may be aware (especially in the gorier sections) that the author has done this before, and in much the same way. Yet Hart has refined her technique, and learned to use atmosphere as a plot element rather than mere background detail, granting this study of erotic, artistic and religious passion a complexity her earlier novels lacked.
A thirtyish schoolteacher in a rural village at the turn of the century, Bethesda is constrained by duty and convention. She cares for her ailing mother, although their relationship seems more obligatory than fond, and has been indifferently courted by neighboring farmer Samuel for years. The town's landlord, Lord Grantleigh, sponsors and encourages her painting, but Bethesda's life is otherwise a pretty dull lot until Matthew Pearson and his very pregnant wife move in next door. Bethesda's obsession with this new man will lead to her downfall in every sense, a particularly lurid decline. The author of Damage (LJ 2/15/91) has produced another tightly written, dramatic work that, while occasionally stilted, will fascinate readers.--Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., VA
Time Out New York
. . .a slight, elliptical tale in which passion outstrips reason and triggers disaster. . . .There's a bit of Thomas Hardy in The Stillest Day. . . .But while Hardy sketched scenes of genuing suffering, Hart's . . .pretentious prose is simply insufferable. . . .the majority of this novel is murky, self-important and unrewarding.
The author of Damage (1991), Sin (1992), and Oblivion (1995) is back again with her most expansively titled, yet ungenerously plotted, novel of passionate obsession. Every moment of Bethesda Barnet's life has seemed foreordained ever since the death of her father, an art teacher, left her and her invalid mother still in possession of rooms at his old school at the insistence of the school's patron, Lord Edgar Grantleigh. In the fullness of time, Bethesda will assume a teaching post herself and accept the hand of Samuel Keans, the neighboring farmer. But when the sudden death of the teacher in the next apartment brings as his replacement Mathew Pearson, Bethesda, whose preoccupations have so far focused on such innocuous topics as classicism and romanticism, color versus line, finds herself in the grip of a monstrous attachment to his image. She paints his face on a mirror and gazes into her own face superimposed on it; she paints his hand on another mirror, his neck on a third, virtually exhausting the parts of his body she can ever hope to see.
All the while Bethesda is festering with hatred for Mathew's pregnant wife Mary, and putting off her faithful swain's long-awaited proposal of marriage, she's obviously hurtling toward one of Hart's floridly cryptic calamities. Once the blow finally falls, Bethesda is bereft of her mother, her husband, and her object of irresistible desireall vanished rather unsatisfactorily into thin airand left languishing in a convent with perhaps too much leisure to reflect on her fatal vocation for art and romance, as the novel trails off into a flurry of sad apothegms.
Hart's extravagantly understated prose remainspeculiarly inhospitable to characters and events, which enter her story as furtive interlopers to be dealt with as summarily as possible. Its natural condition, like that of Pater or Poe, seems to be the high-sounding aphorism, 'In repetition the history of an old sin achieves an almost biblical resonance' whose dominance turns this novel into a commonplace book.